Those combating food insecurity in Illinois expect to see more people seeking help at food pantries in the coming weeks as temporary federally funded emergency food benefits, put in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, come to an end.
One million families and two million individuals in Illinois will see their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly called food stamps, reduced anywhere from $95 to $250 per household per month starting in March, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. It administers the SNAP program, which serves almost 70,000 households in the south suburbs.
Amid continuing high inflation, the timing of the emergency benefit cuts is terrible, food pantry operators say.
The additional SNAP emergency allotments, which the federal government started to issue in April 2020 to supplement existing benefits, were intended to help low-income families and individuals avoid food insecurity on top of the challenges faced due to the pandemic, said Greater Chicago Food Depository spokesperson Man-Yee Lee.
But due to policy changes in the federal omnibus bill passed at the end of 2022, the extra support families have received will end two months early, Lee said.
“At a time when food prices remain elevated, we are really worried this reduction will take SNAP participants by surprise and will really impact their ability to put food on the table,” she said.
“To revoke this benefit prematurely when millions of Americans are already struggling to stay afloat will increase food insecurity. It will also stress a charitable food system that has already been responding to a multiyear hunger crisis.”
Food insecurity estimates remain well above pre-pandemic levels with one in five households in the Chicago metropolitan area finding it hard to make ends meet, Lee said. The depository, through its network of 700 partners, distributed the equivalent of more than 77 million meals or nearly 92.5 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2022, which represented an increase of more than 30% compared to pre-pandemic levels in fiscal year 2019, she said.
Food at home prices, which rose throughout 2022, were up 7.7% in December from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department. Across the board, prices increased 5.5% from December 2021.
Nicole Scott, president and founder of Dolton-based food pantry Free N Deed Market, is worried. The pantry, which opened in September 2021, served more than 5,500 individuals in 2021 and more than 10,000 last year, she said.
“This is going to have a huge impact on food insecure families,” she said. “There will be more people who will need to be serviced. I don’t even know if we have the capacity to meet the demand.”
In anticipation of increased need, the pantry is looking at extending its hours or days of operations, she said.
“A lot of people were depending on those extra SNAP benefits for really getting by,” said the Rev. Edward Anderson, a minister at Living Grace Church in Lynwood, which operates a food pantry. “People are going to really have to depend on some of the resources from the pantry to kind of help offset the benefits that are going away. It’s going to be another level of really finding out where they can get what.”
The pantry served 6,453 people in 2022, up from 5,400 in 2021, Anderson said. The pantry’s clients are primarily seniors on fixed incomes. Anderson expects those seniors to start bringing in other friends and families in need. To gear up for the increased demand, the church is focusing on recruiting more volunteers.
“If we have more people needing help, we will need more people to assist when folks come in,” he said.
The Illinois Department of Human Services is working to educate benefit recipients about the elimination of the SNAP emergency benefits via mail, text and the media and through its community-based partners.
“We want folks to prepare to the best of their abilities for this anticipated drop in SNAP benefits,” said Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou. “We are working closely with food banks across the state and their food pantries to make sure they have resources to meet the potential additional need.”
The department is encouraging SNAP benefit recipients to make sure their accounts are up to date including reporting any increase in housing costs or decrease in income to make sure they are receiving the maximum SNAP benefits for which they are eligible and to see if they are entitled to other aid, such as Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Family, Hou said. SNAP benefits are based on household size, income and deductions.
SNAP benefit recipients are being encouraged to visit www.abe.illinois.gov to update their accounts.
Lee said Congress needs to do more to combat food insecurity.
“We really urge this Congress to strengthen SNAP within the new farm bill,” she said. “SNAP really is our nation’s most effective tool to prevent hunger. If they’re taking away these temporary provisions, they need to find other ways to make sure participants are receiving the help that they need.”
To find food pantries in Cook County, go to chicagosfoodbank.org/findfood. To find pantries statewide, go to go.illinois.edu/findfood.
Francine Knowles is a freelance columnist for the Daily Southtown.